Taking a leap of faith to find your true passion.
Tola Lawal shares, "Shifting Gears.”
Currently working as the Assistant Director of College Success at a High School in Brooklyn, Tola has an unwavering passion for challenging our youth to be the best version of themselves. In her current role, she is leading the charge in helping inner city students take control of the trajectory of their lives by arming them with the tools needed to succeed in college and beyond. In previous role, Tola sharpened her sword with media outlets MTV, BET, and also been featured in Black Enterprise for career innovation.
In her spare time she hosts a dinner series called Reservation For 10, for college students interested in a career in media, runs a foundation for minority girls called Gyrl Wonder and is insanely obsessed with diversity and inclusion.
MAKE A DONATION
Listen: Without access to role models and professional development, the youth in our community risk not going to college, remaining underemployed, and completely unaware of empowering entrepreneurial opportunities. Our programs provide platforms for today's leaders to educate and inspire the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs in Washington D.C. and beyond.
Episode 2: Shifting Gears with Tola Lawal
Written by: Sope Aluko
Talk about your childhood and what growing up was like for you.
Tola: My childhood was pretty cool. I have a mother that was my first role model and I didn’t realize it until my job in education that I did have a role model and mentor that lived in the same house as me. She was the prime example of everything that I wanted and strived to be. She is so graceful. My mother was an educator for 30+ years and actually just had dinner this past Friday with her first graduating class of students. She’s always been cool, calm, and collected- I’ve never seen her “out of pocket.” Growing up I was like, “I don’t really know how to do that but I need to be more like my mother!” My father was very strict, a little rough around the edges, but my mother was the balance in the house, almost like the devil and the angel. I had a decent childhood.
How did your childhood help you figure out your career path?
Tola: Honestly, I’ve been an entrepreneur since I was 12 years old. It’s because I wanted to make sure that I had money to go Christmas shopping for my parents. Every Christmas, there were so many things under the tree from them and I wanted to give them something. Around September or October, I would tell my mom we needed to go to Woolworth’s. She would take me shopping to whatever arts and crafts store that I wanted to go, and I would find a craft that I could make and I would sell it to my family members and my Mom’s co-workers. I started out with Kente cloth place mats with laminated plastic over them and my family would buy it. I just knew I was making it! My senior year in high school I was making crochet Christmas ornaments and made about $1,000
Did you know what entrepreneurship was as a kid?
Tola: I don’t know. I just know that the end goal was to get my parents’ Christmas presents. I didn’t really know it had a name back then. I got to college and realized that I wanted to be my own boss. I knew I wanted to be in the entertainment industry, I just didn’t know in what field. I knew I could do marketing or PR, but I wanted to just get in there and figure out how to maneuver. When I got to Pace University, I just jumped into my internships. I interned at Sony, MTV, and Jive Records, which no longer exists. My friends would be like, “Hey did you get that *[internship] from the career office?” and I would just say, “No, I got this myself!” I literally sat down and made a list of 10 companies that I wanted to work for, printed out my resume at my campus job and stole postage and envelopes because back then you had to mail it because there was no email! The calls started coming in and I would say that out of 10, I got three or four calls back. I had to keep going. I would get in my friends’ ears like, “Where is your internship? We’re graduating in two years. You need an internship before we graduate.” You know when you’re in the music industry and get all the music for free, you’re the cool kid on the campus.
Did you know anyone in the industry? Where were these networks at that time?
Tola: I was 19 years old. I didn’t know anybody. I got my first internship in 2002 and graduated in 2004. I did it THAT way! When you graduate, you don’t have time to work for free. Do it when you’re in school with at least two to three internships as a resume builder. When you graduate, you can hit the ground running and it looks like you have work experience, you know how to conduct yourself in a professional setting, and you have transferable skills.
What was your first job after college?
Tola: I did beauty PR at this company called Trachtenberg PR and it was amazing. It was hard work but I often referred to it as my breeding ground where I realized that the entertainment industry is not all glitz and glamour. There’s going to be long nights, no pay, stressful bosses, and people don’t know how to talk to each other. I enjoyed it so much because I learned so much. I learned a lot of “do’s and don’ts.” The free products were amazing and that’s how I really started getting into makeup. I was there for a couple of months and then I got a call to go to MTV from my old boss. MTV was thee network! TRL was still there and all the new shows were coming out. It was a great time.
What is one lesson from the entertainment industry that has stuck with you today?
Tola: There’s really no emotion in entertainment- it’s all business. Everybody is just trying to get to their own goal. Don’t take these things personally. Just realize going in that not everybody is your friend. Entertainment is cutthroat because everyone wants to get to the top, or what they think is the top.
You transitioned from entrepreneurship to education to entertainment. What is the top for you?
Tola: I don’t think I’ve gotten there yet. I’m trying to figure out how to marry my two passions of the youth consumer and marketing and branding. I think my next role in my career is going to be a youth consumer marketing position somewhere. If I have to create it or jump into a company with my data and say, “Hey guys, you’re missing this and this is what I can do,” then that’s what the next thing will be. Transitioning from one industry to another can be difficult, but I didn’t have a choice. In undergrad, I was president of everything and I would create all these activations for my friends and bring events to campus. I always remember how excited my friends would be when we would have events on campus because college can be boring sometimes. When I graduated, I said I was going to work in a college relations department at a label, but they don’t even exist anymore. I’ve always just had that passion for working with students. When I was at BET, I actually did a tour for Carol’s Daughter and I hit six HBCUs in five days. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Just the response was amazing. The girls at FAMU were jumping over tables for hair products. I was like, “Wow, this is serious!” I was so excited that the were excited.
What’s the blueprint to transfer to another industry?
Tola: You just have to pay attention to the signs. I got laid off from BET. That was sign number one. As soon as I got laid off, the money really wasn’t coming in, but Black Enterprise sponsored a tour [that day I got laid off]. I hit a couple of colleges and it was just so fluid. When people heard that I was embarking on this new venture, people were willing to help, so I knew I needed to start paying attention to this. If it happens fluidly and everything starts falling into your lap, that’s what you’re supposed to pay attention to. Reluctantly I was paying attention to the signs. I was still applying to my entertainment jobs and for two opportunities that I was the number one candidate, someone came and swiftly came and snatched it out of my hand. I got two rejection letters on April Fool’s and I was like, “Alright God, tell me where I’m supposed to be.” 2015 was the roughest year of my life and I’m very transparent about that. I tell people all the time. It was a huge eye-opener for me, like I almost got evicted after one month of being late and I could understand that. I had to reach out to my mother after a while but you know, who wants to ask their mother to pay their rent? I had to make that call and hear what she had to say.
What are the unique differences between entertainment and education?
Tola: Education is a lot more purposeful. You can see the effect that you’re having on people and students and the gratitude. You don’t get too many “thank you’s” in entertainment. Just a couple of days ago on my birthday, my eyes were watering from the texts messages from my students. When you’re in it, you don’t really feel like you’re making an impact or that they’re listening to your words, but when they start repeating things that you’re telling them I’m like, “Oh my gosh, you WERE paying attention!” It’s so much more purposeful. I love entertainment don’t get me wrong, but when you’re in an executive assistant position it’s very hard to get out of that role. Yes, I took the role because I was super happy to be at MTV but I was like, “I don’t want to be anybody’s EA for the next 10 years. I had to create my own opportunity. I created my own marketing and branding company and I would take all these freelance opportunities. My first client was Jamie Foxx and one of my friends worked for his management. I did some online marketing for him and I was always asking him and looking for freelance stuff. I knew that I had to create my own to prove that I could do it to get of the EA role.
What are the pros and cons to being an entrepreneur?
Tola: Calling your mother to help you pay your rent. You have to hustle hard to get that check. You have to have be in your mind setting up the next opportunity. You should always be pitching, pitching, pitching. That’s one part of entrepreneurship I do not like. I just told you I do not like to ask so it’s very hard for me to pitch and find that business. I needed to join forces with somebody whose strengths were my weaknesses. I can put together a marketing deck and execute. I love the traveling and all that stuff. But pitching I can’t do.
Who's on your Mt. Rushmore of inspiration?
Tola: Of course my mother. Then I would say Oprah, Gary Vanderchuck, and DJ Khaled. I have to put DJ Khaled up there right now because he is just so positive all the time. At one point, he was probably the most inspirational person on social media.
What would you say is your passion and when did you know?
Tola: My passion right now is helping our students with the trajectory of their lives. I want to say that I knew it was my passion after the Carol’s Daughter tour. I’ve always been excited about creating and I realized I needed to figure out how to fuse the two. I wanted to figure out how create more often.
Do you believe that at some point everyone has had a vision or a dream for their life?
Tola: I think they do but you also need to realize that it's the vision or dream for your life and move forward. I think I’ve been moving slow on my vision and I think God sends me messages through messengers. I’m not as quick as everyone thinks I am. I’ll be like, “God, if you’re trying to tell me something just make it plain as day because I can’t really decipher all the time. He’s been sending me messengers a lot lately.
What inspires you to succeed?
Tola: My mom. I just want her to be proud. She’s tells me pretty often that she is but it’s a continual thing. I just want to be dope. I want people to look at me and say, “Look at Tola, I love her!” That’s really it. I didn’t really mention it before but my father and I didn’t really get along when I was younger and I wanted to make sure that when I got to this point in life, he would say, “My daughter is awesome.” I haven’t talked to him in 17 years and he hit me up on Facebook and said he’s seen the amazing things I’m doing. That’s all I’ve ever really wanted.
How do people break into the entertainment industry?
Tola: First of all, you matriculate into school in the fall, bring me that 3.0 and then we have this conversation. You get those grades and you figure out what companies you want to work for and some things you have interest for that can turn into a career field. Honestly, all they know is lawyer and doctor but let’s just take a deep dive. Everything is a job, so let’s figure out what your likes and passions are. A lot of them like fashion or helping people. I make them do a “brain dump”. We talk about 10 of the companies that they have interest in working in, opportunities that they offer and get the resume together and make sure that the bullet points and deliverables at these companies fit the role that you’re looking for, and make sure social media profiles are up to date. I just want them to keep the eyes on the prize. People out here aren’t going to give it to you. Make sure you do your part before you come and ask for help.
Interested in learning more or connecting with Tola?